I have had several people ask me who is the main character of my thriller novel. But, the novel involves multiple characters working as a team who rise and fall as the need occurs. At first I thought it doesn't matter if there is a main character in a story about a small group working together. Do the X-men have a main character? Do the Avengers have a main character. How about the Walking Dead? But, my wife pointed out that yes, the Walking Dead do have a main character, it is Rick the sheriff. And thinking more on it I decided the Avengers have a main character also, it is Captain America. Even the X-men has one, the main character that continues even when they are not in the story isn't Dr Xavier, it is Wolverine. Her point is readers expect a main character because they want to know their origins, how their lives evolved to where they are in the story and how the other members feel about them. Too many 'leaders' become too confusing and readers simply lose caring for all the characters.

However, I also challenge the reader to name a single main character from Andromeda Strain or even Jurassic Park. A good editor friend told my my main character is the virus the team is trying to cure. Are the critique and my wife correct? Are main characters essential to both plot and as the anchor for point of view? Or is the foe the main character much like in Jaws or Moby Dick.

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    For that matter, who is the main character in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy? It wouldn't be Frodo, who does not appear for many chapters. Better to ask: What is the main theme? What is the main purpose?
    – user23046
    Mar 20 '17 at 0:05
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    Yes, actually my novel has many similarities to LOTR, I was Special Forces years ago and I like the team approach to problem resolution. I was surprised by the critique that a novel needs a main character, I can think of very many where the task or goal is all that is important. I especially like historical works involving generations of heroes. I do not personally think a main character is essential but will gladly be corrected if they are. Mar 20 '17 at 0:25
  • When I read a story, I generally want to put myself in the story by identifying with one of the characters. There's only one of me, so I can only identify with one character at a time. While this isn't essential as the answers point out, it's a basic human characteristic. I need something to identify with so I care enough about the story to finish reading it.
    – Joe
    Mar 21 '17 at 22:58
  • i clearly see your point and my wife agrees with you. I need to find a way to turn an anti-hero into a protagonist worth caring about. Mar 22 '17 at 3:04

You can certainly have an ensemble cast, and you can certainly send a team on a shared quest. Hundreds of novels and movies do exactly that. But while a team can have a shared plot, a plot is not the same thing as a story arc.

A story arc is the difference between a story and a piece of imagined history. It is the emotional lure that attracts the reader to the piece. A story arc is fundamentally moral. It is about how a character responds to a challenge and the price they are willing, or not willing, to pay to achieve their ends. This is a fundamentally moral question. It is not a matter of method, but of values. As such a story arch is fundamentally individual. A character can have a story arc; a team cannot.

If multiple team members go on a quest, either there is one member of the team whose moral arc is the focus of the work, and the others are supporting characters, whose motivations and actions need to be plausible, but do not necessarily need to be fully explored or to reach a moral crisis and resolution; or each (or several) member(s) of the team has a featured moral arc that is fully explored and resolved over the same series of events that mark the plot, meaning that several story arcs are brought to crisis and resolution at the climax of the novel.

The latter, of course, requires considerable coordination, and it is not at all unusual for some of what seemed like promising and interesting story arcs in the development of the story to go unresolved in the end. Often the way you know who the "main character" of a story really is is that their moral arc is the only one that actually gets fully and satisfyingly resolved.

But if you have people asking you who the main character of your novel is, it may well be because they are not finding a moral arc to follow. If they were engaged with a single moral arc, they would not ask the question. And I suspect that if they were truly engaged with multiple moral arcs they would not ask it either, or perhaps only at the end if they found that the more compelling moral arc they had been most invested in turned out never to be fully resolved.

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    Or perhaps some people are trying to find the protagonist and, because the team has several well crafted protagonists so that one doesn't rise over the others, they fail to find the one. I can assure that the vast majority of my students is convinced there can be only one protagonist. They may find a supporting character is more interesting, but the protagonist must be only one. Even in a romance, either the woman or the man must be slightly above in importance. A very stifling notion of protagonist, but deeply set. Mar 20 '17 at 8:27
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    @SaraCosta, alas all too many writing students pay more attention to the stupid things they read in writing books than to the actual things they read in real books. The formula becomes more important to them that the art the are supposedly trying to master. A good rule for them would be that they are only allowed to read one writing book for every 25 non-genre novels they read. They should probably also read at least one non-genre novel for every movie they watch.
    – user16226
    Mar 20 '17 at 12:02
  • Do protagonists have to be morally good? Here is a very interesting link to a graphic novel: johnl.org/2009/08/27/stalin-vs-hitler. I would be hard pressed to decide which of these two would be the protagonist. Since the comic was originally in Russian, I assume since 'history is written by the winners' Stalin would be portrayed as the main character. On a lighter note, the movie, King Kong vs Godzilla, which monster is the protagonist is again subject to the culture that interprets the action. How can a 'Collector' of biological weapons be viewed as a 'good' protagonist? Mar 20 '17 at 15:00
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    My amoral Collector has very basic goals, stay alive during an outbreak and bring back the biological weapon before the Russians get it while hiding the fact that Americans inadvertently caused the outbreak in the first place. Sadly, it is rather realistic. He doesn't seem sympathetic to me, is why my wife suggested how he was once 'normal' like Walt was on the series "Breaking Bad" Mar 20 '17 at 16:14
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    @RichardStanzak, those are all practical problems, and therefore useful elements of plot. But without some moral question at stake, you have an imaginary history, not a story. It may have technical interest for a few, but it is unlikely to engage anybody who does not have that same technical interest. Consider the Whiskey Priests in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory. He has many practical problems trying to avoid arrest, but at the core it is his struggle with his own sinfulness and the choices he could make to abandon his faith to escape prosecution that make the novel compelling.
    – user16226
    Mar 20 '17 at 16:49

Game of thrones. Fifty main characters, but only within their own chairs.

You don't need a main character, but every scene needs a protagonist.

  • thank you I concede that a main protagonist or even possibly just an antagonist is essential but it doesn't even have to be human or alive. I used to love anti-heroes. They had fallen into disfavor but seem to be undergoing a revival, a good comic example is Deadpool and even James Bond. Neither are really very heroic but good protagonists Mar 20 '17 at 0:33
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    Right, a protagonist is not a hero. It's just the main actor. Lotr, Sam and frodo split the roles
    – Kirk
    Mar 20 '17 at 0:47

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